Postcards from the Edgewater

Miami's slummiest oceanfront neighborhood could be the next big thing. It could also turn into the next condo canyon.

To this end the corporation has three missions: It provides small grants -- about $1400 each -- to repaint commercial exteriors; it hosts an annual fundraising golf tournament, underwritten by the Bacardi company, which has headquarters in Edgewater; and it builds low-income housing.

From July 1998 to September 1999, the organization helped some twenty local businesses paint their shutters, signs, and awnings, for a total of about $28,000. (The corporation receives funds though city and federal block grants.) In that same fourteen-month period, $80,000 of a roughly $155,000 budget went to two full-time staff salaries, for executive director Juan Jane and a secretary. (It appears that most of the rest of the budget went to administrative costs, such as rent and insurance.)

The low-income housing hasn't happened yet, though Jane says the corporation has spent five years trying to begin to build two single-family homes in the neighborhood. (They broke ground on both at the end of June.) It took several years simply to buy the property, he explains, and the city has rejected three building permit applications. “I tell you, it has been a hell of an experience,” he concludes. “I have learned a lot.”

Michelle and Joel Rodriguez want to be able to raise their children in Edgewater
Steve Satterwhite
Michelle and Joel Rodriguez want to be able to raise their children in Edgewater

Armando Rodriguez and his family, like Navarro, own a number of shabby buildings in Edgewater, some of them redesigned to squeeze in extra apartments. The façade of one of his eight-unit properties is chipped and the building number looks painted on. The entrance is marked by one rusted, askew handrail leading to a battered metal door. A foul-smelling open Dumpster stands close to the entrance. No curtains cover the grimy windows. Inside the hallway floors are bare plywood. Out back the “yard” consists of a layer of poured concrete.

Next door real estate agent Alex Justo also owns an eight-unit apartment building. While both structures are identical architecturally, Justo has devoted considerable labor and money into fixing his up. A filigree ceramic street address is attached to the front wall. A black security fence encloses the property, and two large royal palm trees bracket the front. The entrance is marked by a wood-frame glass door with a wreath hanging over it, and the new windows are decorated with lace curtains. The building has a fresh coat of paint, hardwood floors, and spotless halls. “Everything in there is brand new, except the bathtubs,” he says, “and I had them restored.” Out back a graveled courtyard offers a gardenlike retreat. Justo charges tenants an additional $100 to rent his apartments, and he fears that the Rodriguez building is dragging down property values and keeping out the kinds of tenants he hopes to attract.

Like Navarro, Rodriguez defends the condition of his building and insists everyone doesn't move at the same pace. “I have tenants who have lived there for ten years,” he says. “I do things little by little. There is a difference between being clean and being all bon vivant.” And while his tenants are poor, he insists he won't tolerate criminals. “Some people confuse poverty with delinquency,” he notes.

Crespi is sympathetic to both positions. He believes the extensive subdividing of old homes and apartment buildings is the legacy of the neighborhood's past as a dumping ground. “When it was run-down, in order to meet your expenses, you had to be creative and build more apartments,” he says. “As the neighborhood improves, better rents will be available, and things will return to normal.”

Last month Concerned Citizens of Edgewater hosted a community meeting attended by about 75 residents and property owners who piled into a second-floor conference room at the Juan Pablo Segundo Jesuit retreat to discuss problems in the community. Among those present were Joel and Michelle Rodriguez, and Alex and Diane Justo. Officer Mendez showed up, off-duty. Cofounders Armando Rodriguez and Juan Crespi turned out an impressive array of city staff, including recently elected City Commissioner Johnny Winton, new City Manager Carlos Gimenez, and new Police Chief Raul Martinez, to answer questions and take complaints.

Residents continue to protest bitterly about crime and trash, and that night the city officials promised to redouble efforts to clean up the area. Commissioner Winton promised that the city would begin foreclosures against landlords of derelict properties who refuse to comply with city codes. But then came a surprise announcement: plans to build a 180-apartment building for low-income and Section 8, or welfare-recipient, tenants.

Alarm in the crowd was evident. It was as if the city didn't yet grasp what these residents were trying to do. “A development like this can wipe out years of progress,” bemoaned one homeowner. “Some people still view this as a blighted area.” Why, he wanted to know, hasn't the city produced a master plan for Edgewater?

Joel Rodriguez confesses he's torn about the future of Edgewater. As a real estate agent, he believes land must be put to its greatest value. “It's a shame that real estate so close to the water is a slum,” he believes. At the same time, he remembers the love and work that went into his buildings. Ideally the city will find a way to be creative while preserving the old properties and character of Edgewater. “That's what attracted us to the neighborhood,” he says.

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